Late this afternoon at Miller Park, Mike Rizzo spent his first day as the Nationals’ president of baseball operations like so many days before the promotion and hefty raise he received Thursday. Rizzo planted himself behind the cage and watched the Nationals take batting practice. He studied swings, same as the area scout who started out in 1986 making $11,000 a year.
“It was very humbling and gratifying to become the president of the team and to get the extension,” Rizzo said in his first comments about the new title. “I think it’s a statement that there’s continuity and consistency in the organization. I’m honored that the Lerners entrusted me with the goal of making this a championship-caliber franchise.”
Rizzo’s extension, a multiyear deal with a club option at the end, provided him a significant financial boost. The precise figures are not known, but his new contract makes him one of the five highest-paid general managers in baseball, according to a club official familiar with the deal.
The team and Rizzo arrived at the deal after “a couple months” of negotiations, Rizzo said. “We didn’t really put a finite timetable on it. The conversations were always good and amicable. We were getting close the last couple of days. The last couple of days, it came to fruition.”
Rizzo’s new title will not fundamentally change his daily duties. “There’s not a whole of difference other than the buck stops with the president,” Rizzo said. But the extension, he believes, will help provide the franchise cohesion, especially with a new manager to hire this winter.
“I think it’s important for the manager to know who’s going to be his boss,” Rizzo said. “I think it was a big part of the managerial decision. I think it’s important for the franchise as a whole to have stability and to have cohesiveness, not only at the president level and filtered down. That filters all the way to scouting, player development, the minor league coaches, trainers, all the way down the line. I’m responsible for a lot of jobs and a lot of people in this organization. Right now, with the extension that I signed and the title that I have now, I think that really makes us even more of a cohesive unit.”
Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman echoed Rizzo’s sentiment. Zimmerman, who signed an extension last spring that will keep him under contract with Washington through 2020, believes it sends a message across the league.
“It’s always nice to have, I guess, familiar people, to have an organization that has the same people in the same positions for a long time,” Rizzo said. “It makes people comfortable. It makes people look at this organization from another team or as a free agent. They realize that if you come here and do good things they take care of people who do that.”
Manager Davey Johnson recently quarreled with Rizzo over the firing of hitting coach Rick Eckstein. But he has an abiding respect for Rizzo, and he hailed his new deal as a victory for the organization.
“I thought it was great,” Johnson said. “I’ve made no secret I think he’s an outstanding baseball man. I think he’s done a great job here, and it was good to see that his bosses rewarded him. I’m very happy for him. Well deserved.”
With his contract out of the way, Rizzo needs to tend to a Nationals team that sits at 52-56 one year after winning 98 games. At the trade deadline, Rizzo said the Nationals came close to making another deal besides the acquisition of Scott Hairston, but “they turned out not to be the right deals,” he said. Rizzo said he will be open to either adding to the Nationals’ 25-man roster to shipping out players if possible in the August waiver period.
“We’re always looking to be buyers or sellers if it improves the ball club for ’13 and the long term,” Rizzo said. “We’re certainly open to add players, and we’re certainly open to make trades that would send players away if it got us good return that helps us improve the ballclub.”
The Nationals’ underachievement remains baffling to Rizzo. He believed the roster he built was going to continue their success from last season. Even in the face of steady losing, he has not lost that belief.
“I’m surprised it’s been sputtering,” Rizzo said. “You look at the roster we have out there. You look at the track record of the players that are on the field, in the bullpen, in the rotation, on the bench. You say to yourself, if these guys play up to their career norms, we should have a really good ballclub. For a player to struggle and not have a good season is understandable. It happens. But to have a group of players struggling at the same time and not have the continuity is a little bit puzzling.
“If I had a definite reason for it, I would fix it. We’re looking for some explanations how to fix things. We’ve done a lot of different things to do that. Right now, you have to allow the players to play out this last third of the season and see where it takes us. I believe averages are just that – they’re averages. One good third of a season can really turn a season around.”